Spring's Emissary: Mărţişor
Actualizată în: 1 feb. 2021
Parallel to the course of modern life, runs, interlinked, the channel of myth and legend - the preservation of meaningful symbolic rites. For the folk of Eastern Europe this is innate to their lifestyle, a trait they will undoubtedly pass down to further generations.
WHAT IS MĂRȚIȘOR?
Stemming from a rich history of spirituality and faith in the unseen, Mărţişor has its own journey across the millennia. Its symbolic meaning has been maintained and celebrated from the times of Dacians and Thracians, with the holiday, now, being an undistinguishable part of the collective consciousness for Romanians, Bulgarians and Moldavians alike. A national symbol, Mărţişor is particularly meaningful as it has survived the lifestyle changes of modern times, and transformed alongside them, allowing for its celebration to pertain to the newer generations.
Mărţişor is a commemoration that marks the arrival of spring. It is celebrated on the first of March, hence its eponymous name, and invites folk of all ages and social backgrounds to participate in its honouring. Throughout history, villages would come together and celebrate the arrival of spring by gifting trinkets (mărţişoare) to one another, meant to symbolise prosperity and good luck for the coming season. However, there is a deeper meaning to this holiday, and to unveil it, we have to go back to its roots.
FOLK STORIES AND ORIGIN
Historically speaking, the holiday is ancient, archeologists having found remainders of mărţişoare (plural) dating back eight millennia ago. Consequently, it is deemed that the event originates from the times of Dacians and Thracians. So, to put it simply, no one country holds paternity over the Mărţişor tradition. All three Balkan nations that celebrate the holiday have the same Daco-Thracian descendancy. Consequently, the holiday does not ‘belong’ to one particular culture; instead, it’s a celebration of similarities found among differences.
The rite is also believed to celebrate the Roman’s transition to the New Year, which happened on the first day of spring. The arrival of spring is perceived as a joyous time, lifting community’s spirits. For one, it marks leaving behind the cold months of winter, making way for the revival of nature and agriculture. There are, of course, other folk stories associated with the birth of the holiday: from the legend of ‘Baba Dochia’, to the bildungsroman-style righteous fights between good and evil. However, the intrinsic aim of all folk-stories is to give symbolic and historical meaning to the trinkets (mărţişoare). A supernatural appeal that would keep the story of Mărţişor alive for generations to come.
Mărţişorul (singular) is seen as a good-luck charm that safeguards villages from intemperate weather and offers abundant crops. Folk would wear the trinket until they believed spring had won her fight with winter. This transition was recognised by hearing the first cuckoo’s song, the blossom of cherry trees and the return of storks and sparrows. Only then, would the wearers remove their mărţişor and tie it to a blossoming branch, thus ensuring the following year’s good fortune. The practices differ among countries and regions, but the underlying desire remains the same: prosperity for the community.
THE TALISMAN: SYMBOLIC MEANING AND RITUAL PRACTICES
The yearly spring tradition is meant to bring communities together and unite people in spirit, being most commonly known for its gifting practices. People will gift each other small trinkets, meant to symbolise good luck and fortune. In the olden days, the talisman was created by interlacing two pieces of wool, one red and one white, forming a string that would be worn at the wrist or pinned at the chest. The piece was special, as it was home-made by the household’s eldest female, the colours being given meaning through the legends previously mentioned. From the folk stories talking of the fight between Good and Evil, red was symbolic of Good’s blood as it trickled down the white winter snow. The meaning emphasised spring’s triumph over winter; a most glorious fight that, alas, allowed for nature’s revival.
Other sources claim red symbolises love and vitality, whilst white is the carrier of purity and new beginnings. Simply put mărţişor is meant to signify the harmony between opposites: summer and winter; warm and cold; light and dark. The beauty of the practice lies in its creation, spread and meaning.
WIND OF CHANGE: MODERN TIMES
Naturally, in due time, the trinket began to change from an aesthetic point, the folk adorning it with silver coins. As times kept moving forward, more and more people left the countryside, finding new homes in developing urban areas. This caused a rift between folk and olden traditions, with most holidays shifting their focus on consumption and spending, rather than spiritual meaning. Mărţişor was no longer perceived as an honouring of nature and good fortune, as much as a gifting holiday.
Following a natural progression of civilisation, Mărţişor needn’t fulfil the same role as it once did. The people in urban areas, so far away from nature and the village life, were more focused on their careers and progress. Consequently, the superstitions and legends of Mărţişor were left behind, as memories of a forgotten time. The trinkets were now mass-produced and embellished with talismans like horseshoes, four-leaf clovers or chimney sweepers. The string itself lost its meaning. Once the heart of the symbolic celebration, now it’s a mere trademark of the holiday, something to mark an occasion. People began giving meaning to the pendants attached to the string, 'shifting' the good luck from the old to the new.
Though still a signifier of sprig’s arrival, since the holiday is celebrated on the 1st of March, the meaning of Mărţişor now focuses on gifting and receiving trinkets. The symbolic rite of wearing the bicoloured string until the sparrow’s return and then tying it to a blooming tree, however, lost its meaning - consequently, loosing frequency of practice. Not to despair, though, as one aspect of the holiday remains the same: bringing people together. Though the amulets fulfil a different role, a commercial and capitalistic one, their gifting still brings happiness to communities and social groups. Sharing the joy of welcoming spring after hard winters retained its importance, helping maintain social cohesion among the radical changes of the modern world.